HomeNewsMarked with national memorial service & vintage train ride

Marked with national memorial service & vintage train ride


The Tangiwai disaster was New Zealand’s worst rail tragedy, with 151 people dying when the locomotive and most carriages tumbled into the Whangaehu River on Christmas Eve 1953. Photo / Herald Archives

The 70th anniversary of the Tangiwai rail disaster will be marked with a vintage train ride and memorial service.

Christmas Eve 2023 will mark the 70th anniversary of the disaster, where a lahar from Mt Ruapehu caused significant damage to the Tangiwai Railway Bridge over the Whangaehu River.

Minutes later a Wellington to Auckland night express passenger train entered the bridge which buckled under the weight, plunging the engine and the first six carriages into the flooded river below.

Of the 285 people on board, 151 people were killed, making it the worst rail disaster in the history of Aotearoa.

Tangiwai Memorial Board chairman Bob Norling said there had been a lot of excitement on board the train on the night.

“Father Christmas I think was going to visit the train to meet all the young children on board.

“When they came to Tangiwai the ending was very, very swift.”

The national memorial for the disaster will be held at Wellington Anniversary Weekend on Sunday, January 21, 2024.

Work to plan the memorial has been happening for the past six months and the event committee has been working with Lions Clubs New Zealand, central government, New Zealand Army, Ruapehu District Council, KiwiRail and Ngāti Rangi.

As part of it, a vintage diesel train run by Glenbrook Vintage Railway has been booked for a ride from Paekākāriki to the service at Tangiwai.

“We’ll be picking up people in Palmerston North, Feilding, Marton, Hunterville and Taihape to actually attend the service,” Norling said.

Members of local Lions clubs will be picked up along the way and Norling expected around 120 Lions to support the service.

The train will depart from Paekākāriki at 7am, arriving at Tangiwai before the start of the 1pm service which is expected to finish around 2.30pm.

Guests from KiwiRail, the army, district council and Ngāti Rangi, as well as the district’s MP Suze Redmayne, will give speeches and ceremonial wreaths will be laid at the memorial grounds.

The first turning of the soil for the memorial ground’s new information kiosk will be part of the service.

Norling expected a crowd of around 500 people to attend the ceremony, which he said would honour lives lost in the disaster as well as the families who lost loved ones.

“We will also acknowledge all of the rescuers that actually worked tirelessly for days after finding bodies and luggage out of the Whangaehu River all the way down to the sea.”

The service will be a national event and people were welcome to attend.

“There’s a lot of family, a lot of survivors who’ve got different stories to tell about Tangiwai and we’ll always be connected to it so they’re all invited.”

He was pleased the memorial grounds allowed people, particularly young people, to learn about the disaster.

“It’s a major disaster in New Zealand along with Erebus and the Napier earthquake; there’s quite a few major disasters and Tangiwai ranks as one of the worst.”

The Ruapehu Lions also have a Givealittle page to raise funds for an upgrade and upsizing of the memorial grounds.

“There’s been an outstanding amount of support saying that our memorial out at Tangiwai isn’t big enough for such a big event,” he said.

The Lions aimed to raise $3.9 million for the upgrade.

People can purchase tickets and view a timetable of the train journey via the Glenbrook Vintage Railway website.

This article was republished courtesy of NZMEFinn Williams is a multi-media journalist for the Whanganui Chronicle. He joined the Chronicle in early 2022 and regularly covers stories about business, events and emergencies. He also enjoys writing opinion columns on whatever interests him.